"When you're born, you get a ticket to the freak show. When you're born in America, you get a front row seat."
- George Carlin
For the week of July 4th, we're watching the social and cultural fireworks sparked off by the 50 Greatest American Weirdos, our countdown of the bravest oddballs in the land of the free-thinkers. It's all part of Keep America Weird Week on the Woot blog!
#30. Steve Ditko: As co-creator of Spider-Man and Dr. Strange, among many others, Steve Ditko was one of the handful of people who basically made Marvel Comics. But he had bigger ambitions, spurred on by his unfortunate addiction to a powerful drug: the works of Ayn Rand. After he left Marvel in 1966, his heroes were increasingly bleached of all color and fun. First came the Question, a faceless, pitiless urban spectre Ditko created for second-tier publishers Charlton Comics. Then came the even grimmer Mr. A (shown above), whose super power was apparently the ability to spout an Objectivist soliloquy in the time it takes a single bad guy to fall to his unmourned death. Both wore tailored suits, the ultimate rejection of the hippie era unfolding around them.
Eventually, he abandoned superheroes entirely, then storytelling itself, issuing ham-fisted libertarian tracts like Avenging World to smaller and smaller audiences. Ditko, who could cash in on his iconic status anytime he wants to, has remained true to his austere individualist creed. Unfortunately, that includes refusing to produce work that anybody might actually want to read.
#29. Petey Greene: This longtime Washington, D.C. activist, deejay, and talk show host pioneered an outrageous, unhindered approach to radio that made him one of the most influential figures in the city. He was invited to a White House state dinner in 1978, and was portrayed by Don Cheadle in the 2007 biopic Talk To Me. This clip from his TV show, Petey Greene's Washington, is classic Greene. He was not the type to let the fear of racist stereotypes keep him from enjoying watermelon.
#28. Father Yod: The turn of the '60s into the '70s was a good time to be a self-styled mystic. A World War II vet and failed stuntman named James E. Baker grew his hair, learned some Eastern meditation and breathing techniques, became fluent in mystical mumbo-jumbo, and was beard-deep in nubile young concubines quicker than you can say "Om." But as '70s cults went, Yod's Source Family was pretty benign. They were genuinely nonviolent, didn't brainwash anybody, opened the first organic vegetarian restaurant in L.A., and - most enduringly - released some 60 albums of psychedelic jam sessions. The recently released collection The Thought Adjusters includes such mind-bending toe-tappers as "The Goddess Earth (All My Sons Are Jesus)".
#27. Bobby Fischer: By his late teens, Bobby Fischer could beat any chess player on Earth. But he could never checkmate his own demons. His anti-Communism was fanatical even by Cold War standards, and he forfeited his world championship in 1975 over a minor point of procedure. But things got even worse in 1992, when he broke a U.N. embargo to play a rematch against Boris Spassky in Belgrade duing the Yugoslavian civil war. Now a fugitive from U.S. law, he wandered the world, marrying a Filipina woman 35 years his junior, and spiralling into ever-uglier anti-Semitic conspiracy paranoia. By 2001, he was writing friendly letters to Osama bin Laden. Here's one clue to Fischer's corrosive obsessions: his mother, whom he resented for being largely absent during his childhood, was a Jewish Communist.
#26. Marie Laveau: What is true about the life and powers of New Orleans's original "voodoo priestess", and what is legend? Nobody knows. Maybe she and her snake, Zombi, really did tap into occult forces to see the future, curse the wicked, and bless the good. Maybe she was just a talented performer, deftly playing on her audience's belief in both African spirits and Catholic saints to produce quasi-spiritual spectacles. Or maybe her "powers" derived from the brothel she ran, and the intimate secrets she and her agents were able to glean from her powerful clients. We'll never know. But whether shaman or sham, anybody who could inspire those stories, and the allegiance of thousands of respectable New Orleanians, deserves to be remembered as a great American weirdo. As indeed she is, by the supplicants who continue to flock to her alleged tomb.
#25. John R. Brinkley: Men! Have you lost your vim, your vigor, your physical zest? Are you feeling limp as a wrung-out dishrag - and is it having an effect on your marriage? Let the world-renowned Dr. John Brinkley slice open your scrotum and throw a couple of goat glands in there! That was more or less superquack John Brinkley's pitch to American males for some 20 years, and enough poor suckers fell for it to make Brinkley one of America's richest men, as recounted in the highly entertaining book Charlatan. His real talent was promotional, not medical, hitting on the masterstroke of launching an ultra-powerful radio station in 1923 to promote his dubious cures. Of course, KFKB carried only accounts of Brinkley turning milquetoasts into "the ram that am with every lamb" - not of the many killed, injured, and crippled by his deranged treatment. When famed quackbuster Morris Fishbein succeeded in getting the Federal Radio Commission to shut down KFKB, Brinkley ran for governor of Kansas twice. His credulous army of true-believers was almost enough to put him over the top.
Then he fled to the Texas-Mexico border and launched a new radio station based in Mexico, XERA-AM. Along with the dubious promotion of Brinkley's quackery, XERA broadcast a strong and steady diet of country music legends, bringing the likes of Gene Autry, Red Foley, the Carter Family, and Jimmie Rodgers into millions of homes. By 1942, Brinkley had been hounded out of business and died penniless, his goat-gland cure in permanent disrepute. But the tradition of unregulated Mexican "border blaster" radio stations started by XERA played a huge role in the rise of rock 'n' roll, celebrated in George Lucas's American Graffiti and the ZZ Top song "Heard It On The X". The bearded Texans' lyrics salute a certain medical maverick: "We can all thank Doctor B / Who stepped across the line / With lots of watts he took control / The first one of its kind."
#24. H.R.: Screeching, howling, spinning, diving, yelping, growling, moaning, and turning backflips, the front-maniac for Bad Brains has never been equaled for sheer hardcore-punk dynamism. Unfortunately, his madness wasn't confined to the stage. His belligerent homophobic rants made the band pariahs among their natural allies in the '80s political punk scene. And just as Bad Brains seemed poised to break through to bigger audiences, H.R. broke down, wasting a decade or two wandering around babbling Rastafarian bromides and getting high on God knows what. Happily, H.R. seems to have more or less gotten it together in recent years. He's not doing any backflips these days, but at least he can string a coherent sentence together.
#23. Charles Fort: Got frogs falling from the sky? Fairies in the garden? A poltergeist in the parlor? Charles Fort wants to know! A tireless chronicler of unexplained phenomena, Fort published several collections of paranormal lore that defined the field. His basic thesis - that mainstream science rejects any evidence that doesn't fit into its preconceived notions, and thus forfeits its claims to being an objective analysis of reality - isn't quite supported by his long litanies of weird anecdotes. But his peculiar brand of reverse-skepticism has borne the name "Fortean" ever since. Skeptical? Check it out for yourself. His books, now in the public domain, are available free here and here.
#22. Henry Yesler: Sure, all politicians are liars and con-men to some extent. But Henry Yesler took organized theft to bold new heights. A wealthy sawmill baron and former mayor of Seattle, Yesler pushed the Washington state legislature to institute a lottery in 1876 to help pay for a road through Snoqualmie Pass. Yesler himself scored a license to conduct the lottery, offering his sawmill as first prize. He sold thousands of tickets at $5 each. But as months turned into years, Yesler never turned any money over to the state for building the road, and never awarded any prizes. He simply kept all the proceeds. Yesler was never punished - indeed, was elected to another term as mayor in 1885. The lottery was just one in a long string of scams, unpaid debts, and dubious business deals that kept Yesler one of the leading citizens in this rough-hewn lumber town. Today, one of downtown Seattle's main arteries still bears his name.
#21. Dock Ellis: It's been said that the '60s didn't hit baseball untill the '70s, which makes Dock Ellis is the Timothy Leary of the grand old game. Under the mistaken impression that he had the day off, Ellis dropped acid on June 12, 1970, only to find out that he was pitching that day against the San Diego Padres. A nine-inning journey to the center of the strike zone followed, with Ellis barely able to focus on home plate or figure out how to hold the ball - and throwing a no-hitter anyway. He was presumably sober four years later, when he attempted to hit every batter in the Cincinnati Reds lineup in retaliation for an incident when he was maced by security at the Cincinnati stadium for refusing to identify himself. And he said perhaps the greatest line ever to sum up the new players' refusal to kowtow to management. In 1977, as player rep of the Texas Rangers, Ellis said of heavy-handed manager Billy Hunter: "He may be Hitler, but he ain't making no lampshade out of me."